Kickstarter Shines a Light on Tabby’s Star

To find out what's going on around the weirdest star in the galaxy, astronomers are turning to crowdfunding.
By | Published: May 31, 2016
Where's the Flux
The project logo
Frank Okay

A new Kickstarter campaign could help shine a light on the “most mysterious star in the galaxy.”

Yale University professor Tabetha Boyajian, for whom Tabby’s Star is named, turned to a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for further research on the star that has captivated amateur planet hunters and the general public alike.

“What we need is more data,” says Boyajian. “[We] need to monitor the brightness of the star.”

Kepler’s view of the sky designated by the small boxes

The first observations of Tabby’s star came from NASA’s Kepler Telescope. In 2009, the Kepler telescope was launched to closely study 150,000 stars in a small patch of sky between the constellation Lyra and Aquila searching for exoplanets by dips in light

Amateur astronomers took to Planet Hunters, an online database created for the general public could sift through data, identifying light curves and possible transits. Most planets block less than 1 percent of their star’s bright. As volunteers combed through the data, they noticed that one object —then called KIC 8462852 — exhibited unique drops in its brightness over periods of time. Most of the time, the star’s brightness was constant, but on one occasion the star would lose close to 20% of its brightness, and on another close to 15%.

After the planet hunters observed many of these strange drops of light, Dr.Boyajian and her colleagues were notified of the strange occurrences. Over the next few years, the team tested various hypotheses about what could be causing these strange dips in light. In the fall of 2015, Boyajian and her team published a paper, titled Where’s the Fluxin the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomy Society (MNRAS), identifying possible explanations of what could be happening to Tabby’s Star. The possibilities included planets, dust clouds, asteroid belts, and comets. The best leading, natural explanation was that of a swarm of comets passing in front of the star and therefore blocking out the star’s light.

Penn State astronomer Jason Wright then proposed an alternate, but very remote, explanation for Tabby’s Star: it could be an artificial alien megastructure, known as a Dyson Swarm, creating the dips in light as it orbits the star. A Dyson swarm is a hypothetical megastructure that would encompass a star to capture all of its energy.

“The odds have never been very good,” says Boyajian in regards to the alien megastructures hypothesis. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t look.”

As soon as the story broke (originally in The Atlantic), the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was directed its way in the hopes of finding radio waves emanating from the star. This would support the idea of alien made structures; sadly no evidence was found. The Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama used its telescope to also observe Tabby’s star; again no evidence was found verifying the hypothesis of alien megastructures.

“You can’t prove a negative,” Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, says. “All you can do is hope that maybe there was a transmitter that you could pick up.”

This all leads us to the Kickstarter page. Boyajian and her colleagues have a plan laid out to achieve their goals of researching this star. What they need is the money to buy observing time in an era where that funding is in short supply. “A lot of good science gets turned down,” she said.

As many amateur astronomers and space enthusiasts are interested in what their research will turn up, Boyajian says she is hoping they will stay in the loop and help out. This includes helping to fund her $100,000 goal on Kickstarter by June 17th, 2016.

“There are many people that are interested in it,” says Boyajian. “There is a strong community who are curious to be a part of it.”

Boyajian says that her and her team will be looking at the star in wavelengths of light that are very blue and very red.  This will allow for a broad range in spectrum to observe the star. This will hopefully lead to determine what elements compose the objects blocking the starlight and eventually answer the mystery of Tabby’s star.

The Las Cumbres Observatory Telescope Network (LCOGT) is a privately owned network of telescopes designed for time domain astronomy. In other words, it can monitor the star continuously as these telescopes are placed around the globe. LCOGT will also alert the team when there is activity, which is helpful as the transits are aperiodic says Boyajian.

“The [LCOGT] promises monitoring of this star over consistent long periods of time,” says Boyajian. “It is thousands of times more sensitive and provides more frequency space.”